John Frayne: Opera singer gave audience a night to remember

John Frayne: Opera singer gave audience a night to remember

The word diva (divine) may seem hyperbolic when applied to opera singers, but the appearance of Renee Fleming on the stage at Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 14 had much of a royal progress about it. The venue was filled to the rafters, and the audience greeted her with deafening applause, and I am not using words figuratively.

Fleming has been at the top of the operatic world now for decades. Her numerous CDs fly off the shelves, her lovely face is iconic in the media and her radiant apparel spells s-t-a-r.

If you expected her to break out into the "Vilja" song from Franz Lehar's "Merry Widow" (her latest Met hit), then you got a surprise. Her program followed the pattern of the traditional lieder recital, going from one of the 19th century's classic song cycles, Robert Schumann's "A Woman's Love and Life," to a group of Sergei Rachmaninoff's songs, sung in Russian, and finally to a group of songs by a composer Fleming was born to sing, Richard Strauss. And then, of course, the red meat, the encores. And let me say now, thank you, Ms. Fleming, for leaving the lights on so we could follow the translations of the German and Russian words being sung.

Fleming, with the excellent collaboration of Gerald Martin Moore at the piano, sang the Schumann cycle with an exquisitely modulated voice, deliberately restrained from a full-powered dramatic soprano style. She conveyed poignantly the initial raptures of the love relationship, the joys of motherhood and the final pangs of sorrow at her beloved's death. It was a triumph of emotional portrayal in singing, and the mournful postlude at the end of the cycle was impeccably played by Moore.

After intermission, in the Rachmaninoff section, the restraints on taste and emotion were lifted. Here were depths and heights of extreme feelings in the echt Russian style. Fleming was splendid in the famous opening song, "In the Silence of the Mysterious Night." After songs expressing a wide range of human feelings, at last, with the final "Spring Waters," Fleming released the full powers of her radiant voice as Moore played that great composer-pianist's tumultuous keyboard accompaniment. Then followed thunderous applause.

In the Richard Strauss section, Fleming was on home turf. She admitted that Strauss was her favorite vocal composer. In her song choices, she avoided such obvious hits as "Allerseelen" ("All Souls' Day") and "Morgen" ("Tomorrow"). Her singing of "Ruhe, Meine Seele!" ("Rest, My Soul!") was for me spellbinding, and in "Liebeshymnus" ("Hymn of Love"), she conveyed beautifully the rapturous climax.

Her final song on the announced program was "Die Heiligen Drei Knige aus Morgenland" ("The Three Holy Kings from the East"), and it ended on a note of ironic laughter (for which the poet Heinrich Heine was famous). Fleming's lighthearted tone reminded me of the singing of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

The encores began with "O mio babbino caro" ("O my beloved daddy"), the hit song from Giacomo Puccini's one-acter "Gianni Schicchi." In its two-minute length, I instantly recognized the smoky, velvety quality of Fleming's operatic singing.

She then offered a world premiere performance of the song "Higher" by jazz pianist, vocalist and composer Patricia Barber, who was present at the performance. It was an attractive song, but the words, in English, got lost in the auditorium's vastness.

Then came the big audience pleaser of the evening, "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "My Fair Lady." Fleming, noting that we had plenty of excellent student singers at the University of Illinois, asked us to join in the choruses, and so we did. We could have sung all night if she had led us.

After repeated standing ovations, she complied with a final encore, the Irish folk song "Danny Boy," (also known as "Londonderry Air"), which she sang with pared-down simplicity, but with Moore's ornamented accompaniment at the piano. This final song was Fleming's memorial tribute to Kenneth G. Pigott, the president and CEO of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, who died on the Friday before the concert. Fleming is currently the creative consultant at Chicago's Lyric.

And what did she wear? After singing the Schumann cycle in a lovely blue gown, she made her entrance after intermission in a luminous gold creation, which drew a gasp from the audience, then a round of applause.

In recent years, Fleming has been added to Richard Blackwell's Best Dressed List.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM, and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

Topics (1):Music
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